I first heard about Clark Rockefeller (or rather the man who went by that name) on NPR when the author of the latest book about him did an interview.
The story was fascinating: a teenage German immigrant constructed a series of false identities, culminating in the grandiose persona of Clark Rockefeller, a non-existent distant relative of the legendary family.
With this name and stack of forged fine art, he was able to worm his way into the higher echelons of Boston society and marry a well-do-to woman who financed his grand lifestyle.
For thirty years he kept up the charade which ended when his wife divorced him (still unaware of his true identity) and he kidnapped their daughter.
You had me at pathological liar.
I tore through The Man In The Rockefeller Suit on vacation.
I am interested in pathological liars because I had the great misfortune of living with one.
I write about a lot of things that happen to me, but the worst things take the longest to get around to.
It was a traumatic experience that I feel fortunate to have escaped none the worse off, but a lot wiser for.
I’m not going to bother trying to illustrate this with pictures and memes, it’s just going to be one long block of text. I’m writing it just to get it out there and off my chest once and for all.
John and Anna responded to a Craigslist ad I placed for a housemate back when we offered long-term room and board rentals.
Those two, plus the subsequent arrival of the The Wolfman, were the reason I got out of the business of housemates and switched over to the much more comfortable business of short term vacation rental.
We’d had housemates for years but adding children to the mix made it tricky.
It was hard to find people willing to live in a house with small kids, mine being one-and-a-half and three at the time.
I think I was overly concerned that my children were such a great detractor that I should just let any interested party live with us without asking too many questions. Of course now I see the terrible error in my thinking. I should have been more selective, not less.
When John and Anna emailed that they had just finished respective degrees from Columbia and MIT and were looking to relocate, I was thrilled.
Anna was a former nanny with an M.D. and said she loved children. John said he had a very young sister and missed being around her.
They sent a picture and looked like a nice, young couple although something about John’s appearance made me nervous.
I chastised myself for being so shallow as to rankle at his appearance.
They arrived from Boston bearing gifts for the children and immediately engaged with them. I was so relieved.
Anna was starting her residency at a Denver hospital and John was starting law school at CU.
I was immediately in awe of their education from respected universities, probably because my mother always wanted me to go to an Ivy league college and had built it up to be the pinnacle of achievement.
I have always been insecure about my intelligence and education. At the time, I was insecure about my abilities as a parent. Anna’s nannying past and M.D. elevated her in my mind. She clearly favored Testiclese, an adorable toddler.
Jefé, our other roommate, was the first to say anything negative about her, “I don’t like the way she treats Scrotus. She likes Testiclese more because he’s little. Scrotus talks a lot, that’s what three year-olds do, and that irritates her.”
I should have noticed this. I am their mother.
Every morning she got up, put on her scrubs and went off to work. She came home exhausted and hungry, full of stories from the hospital.
Likewise John got up and went to classes. She was legitimate enough but I should have known something was off about him.
He stayed up all hours, had little appetite and seemed subsist on energy drinks. Not once did I see him crack a law book (which for a first-year law student was unfathomable) and he had led the most remarkable life.
His parents (according to him) were wealthy Park Avenue New Yorkers and he spent every summer with them in India.
His five year-old sister was a child prodigy, picking up the phone to order delivery of “prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella sandwiches” on her own.
John was the expert on everything I expressed a passing interest in.
If Jack Johnson was playing on the radio, he would casually mention that it reminded him the good times they had when he was a lifeguard on Long Island and they would hang out and noodle on their guitars together.
No mention of the fact that he should have been summering in India and Jack Johnson is from Hawaii.
But I never questioned anything.
Jefé commented that having grown up on the east coast himself, he knew lifeguards on Long Island. He said they had a comfort with nature that John most certainly did not.
He also raised an eyebrow when he mentioned that he would like to try ice climbing and John quickly jumped on the band wagon, making motions to purchase equipment.
We never saw John so much as go on a walk much less take on something as demanding as ice climbing.
The $100 computer was in the news and I said that it would be cool to have one.
“I know the inventors of that! We shared a warehouse in Boston, it was incredible. We built a small city inside. It was such a great time!”
Then he got on his mobile phone and appeared to be texting someone. “Which one do you want? The solar powered or crank generator model?”
“Crank!” I said, elated.
After a few key strokes he said, “Done! One of each are going in the mail tomorrow.”
Naturally they never arrived.
Also never to arrive was the Range Rover that his parents were having shipped to him.
At a barbecue he excused himself to take a call. He stepped a few feet away from us and proceeded to loudly harangue the person on the other line.
He became irate and demanded to talk to a manager.
He hung up the phone and I asked what had happened.
“The idiots shipping the Range Rover hooked the chain to the driveshaft, which any moron knows not to do, and pretty much totaled the car.”
I was impressed by how assertive he was on the phone, me being pretty unassertive myself.
“I didn’t really want the Range Rover anyway. My parents were forcing it on me. It’s too ostentascious for Boulder. I think I’ll get a Mini Cooper S instead.”
That never materialized either.
I was starting to question what was going on. I talked to Jefé and Loony about it. They were convinced he was a fraud. Jefé was concerned about his mental health, though.
“What if you expose him and he kills himself?”
I was more concerned about exposing him and then having him seek revenge on me.
He had so much access to my family. My children trusted him. I felt like such a negligent parent. I was a negligent parent.
I brought it up with Loony who said, “Of course it’s a load of BS. I don’t even think he’s in law school. You keep saying he’s so smart (I did) but actually he’s not at all.”
“Why didn’t you say anything sooner?” I asked, disbelieving.
“I thought you knew,” he replied.
“What should we do?”
To this Loony had no answers. He’s maddeningly serene in the face of what I perceive as a risk to myself and the kids. I’m not sure why he is this way but over the years it has been a very sore subject.
It’s not that he doesn’t know when someone is nuts, he does. But if he doesn’t think they are dangerous, he puts up with it.
We went back and forth and I got more and more freaked out.
I’m always one to give the benefit of the doubt so I started asking about his classes. What was he taking? Who was his favorite professor? What was his hardest class?
“Constitutional law,” he answered without batting an eye. Then he talked about the his T.A. who was a total hard ass, even giving me a name.
I checked the university directory to see if he was enrolled. He wasn’t.
I called the law school, they had no record of him.
Still giving him the benefit of the doubt (perhaps he was using a different name, I had never seen his driver’s license) I asked the Law school’s registrar whether his professor was teaching Constitutional Law that semester.
“We never offer Constitutional Law in the fall and we don’t have anyone by that name teaching here.”
I was in a full blown panic, sharing meals and a roof with this person who was lying to me and maybe even his girlfriend.
I’d seen her hospital ID, I knew she was a doctor. Did she know her boyfriend was a liar?
The things he was lying about were inconsequential. Who cared if he summered in India, knew Jack Johnson or was getting a Range Rover? None of that mattered. This person was a pathological liar.
“I don’t think he means us harm, I think he just wants to be liked,” Loony reasoned.
And you know what, I think he’s right. I didn’t think John had sinister motives, but if he’s lying about stuff he doesn’t have to, what else is he lying about?
His behavior was getting more and more erratic. He wasn’t sleeping at all at night and drinking Rock Stars all day. He didn’t have an appetite, he picked at the food I put in front of him.
He and Anna seemed strained. Strange things happened, like all the cushions on the outdoor furniture went missing one day. Packages that were supposed to have been delivered disappeared from the porch.
The final straw was one day I got home with the kids from a bike ride to the reservoir. It was around noon and they fell asleep in the trailer. I got them upstairs and put them down for a nap.
When I used the downstairs bathroom that John and Anna shared, I noticed that it was humid in there. The shower had clearly just been used.
I made lunch for myself when John came in from outside, hair still wet, saying that he was just home between classes for lunch.
He lied to my face. He was in my house when I thought he was gone. It was like airplane engines were roaring in my ears.
I told Loony that I couldn’t live with it anymore; I was almost frantic. When I sat with them at dinner, I drank to deal with the anxiety, becoming overly animated to try to disguise my discomfort.
Finally I told Loony that something had to be done. We waited for Anna to be home by herself and talked to her.
She was a strange person, in many ways less likable John, but she was a doctor which, in my mind, made her a better person than me.
We confronted her with the truth about John not being in law school. We didn’t go much further than that, feeling that deception should be enough. It appeared that she honestly didn’t know, she was being lied to as well.
I told her that as a parent the only responsible thing I could do was to ask them to leave. She agreed and was gone within a couple weeks.
John tried to explain himself but at that point I was so scared and freaked out that I couldn’t even look at him.
I trusted him, which was my failing, I never should have let someone into my house and near my children without having seen his ID and a background check. Both Loony and I should have been more protective. I considered it nothing short of a miracle that nothing bad happened.
John and Anna moved out, we had a series of normal(ish) renters and the not-so-normal Wolfman. We also had wonderful housemates like Jefé and Julie.
When we had a good housemate, it was wonderful, especially for me, a lonely and isolated mother of young children. But when it was bad, it was horrible.
I was so happy to put an end to that era in our lives. Now we just to AirBnB and VRBO where the guests are short-term, don’t come into our private space, and have no interaction with my children.
Reading The Man With The Rockefeller Suit shed light on what happened to me. It helped me understand how someone cons people. Even smart people. First they seek out the weak people, the ones who want to believe, the ones who have low self-esteem when it comes to interpersonal relationships.
I am all those things.
Once I was called for jury duty and was asked if I considered myself a good judge of character. I answered honestly, “I am the worst judge of character you can imagine. Believe me, you don’t want me to conduct job interviews because I want to believe that everyone is great and qualified.”
Beyond that, I want to like everyone. I believe that everyone is more interesting, more funny, more talented than me and I would be lucky if they chose to be my friend. I irrationally believe that everyone in this world has more to offer than me.
I don’t understand where this low self-esteem comes from. I have my theories but I don’t want to go into them here (again, I don’t really write about the hard stuff).
I’ve gotten a little better, though. I can feel myself ramping up when I meet someone new, eager to please and inflated their incredible qualities.
I have to pull myself back and ask if I really want to be friends with this person, just because they are pretty or handsome or funny or can do something interesting.
Do I need to dance for approval and place myself beneath them? Do I need to believe everything I hear?
I also notice inconsistencies and lies. If there is one thing that will end a friendship with me, it’s pretending to be something that you aren’t.
If I am one thing, it is honest. I have been deeply dishonest in my life which has only made me more committed to truthfulness. I don’t understand how people can fabricate improbable stories on the fly.
But the key to being a con artist is identifying the people who want to believe and then telling them what they want to hear.
I hope my BS meter is getting stronger. In the end I need to be willing to have less friends but truly know that ones that I do.
Thanks for reading.